Cartwright, Justin. Oxford Revisited.

London: Bloomsbury, 2008.

In the mid-1960s, young Cartwright, a native of Johannesburg, arrived at Oxford to pursue an M.A. The place took hold of him almost instantly and lodged itself deep in his personality and psyche, as happens to a great many of those privileged to study there.

Now, forty years later, an accomplished novelist and essayist (and reviewer, and film-maker, and several other things), he went back for a visit, having been invited to write this volume in the “Writer and the City” series. Has the university changed? Absolutely. But seen as part of its history of nine centuries as a truly unique place in the Western world, those changes are actually quite minimal. Oxford has always been Oxford. Those who haven’t been there often denigrate its presumed elitism — but that’s the whole point. “Oxford has a symbolic meaning. . . . It stands for something deep in the Anglo-Saxon mind — excellence, a kind of privilege, a charmed life, deep-veined liberalism, a respect for tradition.” (And it is often said in Britain that anyone with an Oxonian background will work that fact into the first ten minutes of any conversation. In the U.S., the same claim is made of those with a connection to Harvard, Texas, or the Marine Corps.) Cartwright compares his own experiences with those of students and dons who came before and after, he puts himself through what turns out to be a rather humiliating experience in an English literature tutorial (the tutorial system is a large part of what makes Oxford and Cambridge unique, and which deeply affects many other areas of British public and academic life), is given a guided tour of some of the unique treasures of the Bodleian, and comments at length on the relationship between the university and its still largely independent constituent colleges. (Quoting the head of Trinity College’s speech to incoming freshmen: “You have come to Oxford but it is Trinity that has admitted you. . . . At Trinity we discriminate neither in favour of nor against anyone. We believe that you are very lucky to be here and that we are very lucky to have you.”) Some of these experiences give him an excuse to discuss at length Isaiah Berlin, one of the greatest and most humane intellects in the Western world in the 20th century and an seminal figure in Oxford, as well as Adam von Trott, member of a high-ranking Hessian family and a German Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the ’30s (and whom Berlin knew), who was hanged for his part in the assassination attempt on Hitler in 1944. (Trott figures in the author’s 2007 novel, The Song Before It Is Sung, hence his interest.) Oxford is both an intellectual heaven and a worldly place — the dons flatly refused to grant Prime Minister Thatcher an honorary degree — and Cartwright does the reader an excellent service in his musings and reflections on the place of the university in Britain, on the nature of both freedom and religious fundamentalism (via Newman’s Oxford Movement), on the meaning of education vs. training, on religion vs. science, on the university’s museums (none of which, he admits, he visited when he was an student), and on such figures as W. H. Auden, John Betjeman, T. H. Huxley, Charles Dodgson, C. S. Lewis, Holman Hunt, Maurice Bowra, Max Beerbohm, and John Plamenatz. This isn’t an especially long book — more of a 260-page essay — but it’s very much worth the reading and the thinking about.

Published in: on 3 January 2012 at 8:26 am  Leave a Comment  
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